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Wenting Li

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Before I began my career, I pictured myself working for a cause in an old brick house, cooled by shade trees and warmed by idealism. Now, I look back on decades as a public servant, spent in 10 office buildings and no old houses.

These days, my colleagues and I are housed in a mid-1950s office building while our usual space is getting a makeover. I’ve come to love our temporary home.

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From the outside, the building is solid. With its light brown bricks, it’s a tanned baby boomer. But beyond skin deep, the building has not aged well. It’s not old enough to charm the casual observer and, it seems, not new enough to meet the needs of today’s workers.

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Unlike modern office buildings, it is much wider than it is tall. If you turned the building on its side, it would be easily three times its seven storeys. Frank Lloyd Wright might have liked its bleached-out prairie vibe.

Our neighbours in this space work for the Geological Survey of Canada. Some offices on my floor were once labs, with exposed pipes, punctuated with faucets, gauges and gas jets. Grey metal shower heads in the hallway were installed to cool burns in case of lab accidents. Pull on the metal chains that hang down, and the showers still work. Behind one door, a piece of equipment looks like a giant barbecue, with a range hood.

Walls, doors and ceiling tiles are scuffed up. We were told not to hang pictures with nails, for fear of disturbing asbestos. You can’t drink the tap water. In the washrooms, the water from each flush would fill a wading pool.

In the summer, paper was limp, not crisp, even when the air conditioning was decent. A few times, water leaks and heating breakdowns have put some or all of us out of our offices. There is always a sense that something else is about to go wrong.

Some of my colleagues will, understandably, be glad to leave. I will miss the place. For every stained ceiling tile, there are little “gems.” The building has history and mystery.

Terrazzo floors on the stairwell and heavy wooden doors remind me of schools and churches I attended as a boy.

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Most of the rooms on my floor have a narrow little closet that any child would love. A long-time resident tells me that they provide access to pipes for carrying fluids, such as the fumes from that giant barbecue.

The double wooden doors to the washrooms have frosted, corrugated glass. Many doors have windows, some with glass portholes. Perched on a filing cabinet in a messy boardroom are four extra-large card-file drawers made of oak.

Office doors left ajar reveal a mix of cheap modern furniture and beautiful pieces from the 1950s. There’s a forest of solid wood – from boardroom and drafting tables to bookcases. Washroom floors and walls are generously covered with ceramic tiles in dubious colour schemes.

One floor down, a handmade sign on a display case says ARTefacts. It’s a little art gallery of rocks, including the aptly named Leopard Stone and Daisy Rock. Polished cross-sections reveal patterns that would not look out of place on blouses or skirts. A much larger and more professional exhibit of geological treasures on the main floor is deserted and dimly lit. But even in the shadows, the collection is dazzling.

Hidden even better in a top-floor corridor are wall-mounted acrylic cases with hundreds of smaller but equally delightful specimens. They include some truly startling hues – from candy yellows and pinks to profound greens and blues. Turns out it’s a “working collection” that geoscientists often use as points of comparison to identify specimens from the field.

The grounds of the building include specimens, too. Flanking the first few steps from the sidewalk, layers of rock peek through grass or snow to form a parallel “staircase.” A sign indicates Pre-Cambrian rock, 440 million years old.

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There’s plenty of green between main entrance and sidewalk, with four gentle Scotch pines among other trees, bushes and shrubs. In an area that sees little traffic, there’s a garden of boulders. It includes pink granite, red granite and crystalline dolomite, whose grey and white surfaces call to mind the coat of a husky. Another boulder is conglomerate, which holds together a bunch of small stones.

Back indoors, we are a conglomerate of skills and roles. My colleagues and I deal in words and pictures, flitting from one deadline to the next. In a week, a day or an hour, we’re onto something new. Geoscientists are deep thinkers and doers, reading complex clues formed over millions of years.

Each day, I pass giant posters, one of which is titled: Recent Changes in Mass Balance of the Meighen Ice Cap, Canada. In my world, posters are made for glancing. But scientific posters, several feet tall and wide, are filled with hundreds of words, along with many graphs and charts. A scientist friend says that such posters anchor informal conversations or “poster sessions” at conferences.

As big or bigger than the posters are the maps. They are everywhere – on walls and screens, stacked on tables, rolled up and spilling out of cardboard boxes. Many are tucked away in cabinets with thin, wide drawers. Rocks everywhere, too, even as door stops.

I feel like a tourist, getting a privileged glimpse of another culture.

My time in this place reminds me of a simple truth. To understand and appreciate anything, from a building to a public-service career, it helps to see it from the inside. To go, like a geoscientist, beneath the surface. To give it time.

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When I leave this old building, I will move into an “activity-based workplace.” Each day when I arrive, I will collect my laptop, notepad and anything else I might need from a locker and find a place to work. No-fixed address. It will be bright and modern, zoned for both quiet work and teamwork.

Between more density and an increasing shift toward telework, this change will save taxpayers’ dollars and reduce our environmental footprint. I am all for that.

It is both exciting and daunting. Will it be quiet enough? Will we be as productive? Will it enhance teamwork and creativity? From afar, I’m not sure. But I’m ready to give it a long look.

Joe McKendy lives in Ottawa.

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